Sri Lanka's Presidential Election(Part 2): Tamils explain why they will not vote

By: Arthur Rhodes

    In the second of this two-part series, Arthur Rhodes finds that for Tamils in the north of Sri Lanka, the ceasefire does not mean peace and the election does not mean change

Northern Sri Lanka --- Weekend afternoons are busy times at the Killinochchi market, but today the monsoon rains came in fast, sending the crowds scattering for cover. Here the rain can fall, patiently, for an entire day. This storm, however, has left as suddenly as it had arrived.

The clouds begin to pass as vendors and shoppers come streaming out from under thatch-roofed shelters to restart the day's commerce. Displays begin to unfold. Fruits and vegetables, sarongs and handkerchiefs are set outside to attract passing customers. Nearby, an older woman begins arranging her stall. At first glance she looks frail, but she moves easily under the heft of the straw mats slightly hunching her back. Finished with her chore, she stands upright, squints, and with a wrinkled, calloused hand shields her eyes from the sun, looking off into the distant and busy action on the other side of the bazzar.

Marutani Kesevarajah is 63 and has lived in Killinochchi all her life. Initially, she says she really doesn't know anything about politics. She doesn't think much about it. Still, she begins to talk about her shop and how happy she is to finally have the opportunity to work and make a living. Her voice begins to rise and she looks around, her eyes wider -- the woman says all she wants is peace. She wants to see her shop grow and to live without fear of invasions or bombings that come in the middle of the night to wipe away progress. She wants to see her town and her people develop and become strong again. While grateful for the chances and successes that have come with the ceasefire, she says she knows it could all be lost if the war returns.

Killinochchi, the capital of the district controlled by the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was one of the areas most badly affected by the violence and destruction of over two decades of civil war. The residents there still remember the bombings and the killings, watching their homes burn and their loved ones die. Though there has been much progress, economic development was badly stunted by the conflict, and even now the area has not fully recovered from years of physical devastation and economic embargos.

"Things are much better since the fighting stopped, and we are happy for that, but we are all still very poor," Kesevarajah says. "The politicians make promises, but they give us nothing."

She says she does not see a reason to vote. "Neither candidate will give us what we need. Eventually both will just bring war." She spreads her arms in a gesture to take in her small shop. "What will I be left with then?"

In another part of town beside the newly-paved A-9 highway, a group of young girls dressed in their immaculate-white school uniforms wait at a bus stop. Just across the street, nineteen-year-old P. Selvan proclaims that he does not care one way or another about the Nov. 17 election. He talks fast, with his hands, and he does not smile. "These elections are not for the Tamils," he says. "They do not care about us in the south. No matter what happens we will not get what we need to prosper and be free...both [candidates] will probably bring war. One might bring it sooner, but it will come. We have lost our hope for peace."

He says that he is ready to fight. "We all are," he says. Over the last six months each member of his household, including his 62-year-old grandmother, has participated in voluntary training offered by the LTTE in which citizens learn, among other things, how to operate an AK-47 assault rifle. Rebel leaders say that this training is being offered in order to prepare citizens for a possible attack by the Sri Lankan armed forces. "We do not know when they are coming," Selvan says. "But we all have to be ready."

In Jaffna, a northern city that houses Sri Lankan troops, soldiers walk the street. Dressed in olive-green uniforms with heavy combat helmets and barrels of T-56 machine guns reaching out from beneath their rain ponchos, the young soldiers look bored and tired. Their presence has some residents on edge and some are too fearful to speak on record. They don’t see the election as bringing real peace and they don’t plan to vote.

Just outside of town, in a refugee camp for persons displaced during the war, a group of adults has crowded into a tiny preschool. This particular village has not been allowed to return to their homes since 1990. For "security reasons," the Sri Lankan military now occupies their land. The residents plan to boycott the election, arguing that ceasefire hasn't permitted them to return home.

One woman is carrying an infant. Her name is Sudamani. She stands on her toes to be seen over his shoulder and raises her voice to be heard over the talking. When the army took over their land in 1990, Sudamani, who does not want her last name published, her mother and two sisters became refugees. Her father had been killed by a landmine earlier that year, soon after both of her brothers went to war. Both were dead before the year ended. "The army has taken away our homes and none of the Sinhalese politicians care to help us. We have no more patience," she says. "No more hope."

Mavai S. Senathirajah, Jaffna Member of Parliament and party member of the Tamil National Alliance, the political party of the LTTE, says that he understands the frustration of the people. "Most of the Tamils in the north have not been able to decide who they will support because neither candidate appeals to them," he says. "Ranil [Wickremesinghe] has not made himself clear on some very important issues, and Mahinda [Rajapaske]'s alliance with the nationalistic parties, his stance on issues such as the agreement to share tsunami aid between the government and the LTTE, which was developed to help innocent tsunami survivors, and his insistence on the notion of a unitary state, all disappoint us deeply."

The polls open shortly, but many Tamils in the north are convinced that the candidates don't understand their real security and economic concerns. They will be staying away. Open warfare has ceased, but in some communities people say peace feels more like occupation than freedom.

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